When Dr. Beverly Tepper isn’t teaching Rutgers University students how to evaluate taste and smell, the food science professor can be found tending some eight acres of grapevines in neatly planted rows on her 78-acre farm in Allentown.
Lately, she has harnessed her teaching and farming skills to create a certificate program to produce a skilled workforce for the state’s growing wine industry.
“It’s been clear for some time that we need a program at Rutgers to help support the winery industry,” Tepper says. “In New Jersey, there’s a need for workers both in the field and in the tasting room, as well as in the production facility.”
New Jersey boasts more than 50 licensed wineries, up from 38 just 10 years ago, according to the New Jersey Wine Growers Association. A 2016 economic impact study found that wine, grape and related industries accounted for 1,979 jobs in the state, up 35.4 percent from 2011. Jobs in the wineries and vineyards generated a payroll of $85.57 million.
A city girl from Boston, Tepper earned her PhD in nutrition from Tufts University and completed her postdoctoral work at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. She arrived at Rutgers in 1989.
Today, she’s a professor in the Department of Food Science, where she directs the Sensory Evaluation Laboratory and is co-founder and director of the Center for Sensory Sciences & Innovation at Rutgers. “We train students to evaluate food products and how to test them appropriately,” she says. “Many of them go on to work in the food industry.”
Tepper entered the wine business in 2015 when she and her partner, Mark Pausch, a retired pharmaceutical research scientist with a PhD in biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology, purchased a former soybean farm. A year later, they planted 19 varieties of grape vines. Three years after that, they began making small batches of wine. Their 2019 Estate Riesling won a gold medal and was recognized as “Best in Show” among white wines at the 2020 WineMaker Magazine amateur wine competition.
“I was developing much more of an interest in the area of grapes and wine, and I know how to put programs together,” Tepper says. “It just seemed like a no-brainer to link my professional abilities as an instructor and educator with helping the industry move forward.”
The question was, if they build it, will they come? Apparently, yes. The results of surveys last year out of the Rutgers Office of Continuing Professional Education found enthusiasm for the program from undergraduates and alumni. New Jersey winery owners, meanwhile, indicated they could accommodate student internships and would be willing to hire students who complete the program.
Tepper took a five-month sabbatical in January to organize the program and link instructors with various modules. The result is the Grape and Wine Science Certificate Program, which will run weekdays August 1-26 from 9 am-4 pm, and consist of in-class learning, hands-on workshops, and visits to vineyards and wineries in the state, followed by a paid internship at a winery. It covers grape growing, winemaking and business operations, and is open to college students and adult learners.
“We can’t teach everything in a four-week program,” Tepper says. “But we can give them enough knowledge and experience that they can go into a winery and help the owner. They can learn things that perhaps will land them a full-time position, or they can take those skills elsewhere and pursue a career.”
In the meantime, Tepper’s work continues in the vineyard, which she and Pausch named Avventura—Italian for “adventure.” The duo has been waiting for permits to construct a 5,000-square-foot production and tasting facility by the vineyard. Then they’ll work on approval to sell their wines to the public. “In New Jersey, you have to have a building to get a license to sell wine,” Tepper says. “But you can make wine for your own personal use, which we’ve been doing in our home winery—in our garage.”
Once the tasting room is running, Tepper will consider offering educational programs based on her work at Rutgers.
“I’m not sure everybody knows the difference between taste and smell, and what we call trigeminal sensations like irritation, heat burning astringency—the dryness of wine,” she says. “It would be great to have people understand these different sensations, then bring that knowledge to their wine tasting.”
As much as Tepper is focused on the program and her winery, she’s looking at the bigger picture: “We’re at a place in New Jersey where the Finger Lakes were 25 to 30 years ago. It can go very far if we have a good workforce. There’s certainly a lot of enthusiasm out there.”
To learn more about the program and how to apply, click here. The deadline for applying is July 1.